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May 29, 2017

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Hong Kong star Andy Lau rescues hit film


The Straits Times/ Equal parts bone-cracking, sidesplitting and heartbreaking, "Gallants" is the sort of Hong Kong martial arts comedy you wish got made more often.

In fact, it took writer-directors Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok 10 years to get the movie made. It was a long journey involving countless rejections by countless producers, a breakneck 18-day shoot on a shoestring budget and a fairy godmother — okay, godfather — in the form of Heavenly King Andy Lau.

Recalling the rejections, Cheng, 36, says in a telephone interview from Hong Kong: "Nothing was harder than this. Nobody wanted to give us the money to do this."

The movie went on to win four Hong Kong Film Awards in April, beating the Tang Dynasty mystery "Detective Dee" to the Best Film statuette. "Gallants" opened the Hong Kong Film Festival in Singapore on Thursday.

Between its colorful, retro opening credits and graying cast, led by 1970s kung fu actors Leung Siu Lung and Chen Kuan-tai, the movie may look like a blast from the past of Hong Kong cinema. Instead, it is a timeless tale of aging men finding they still have some fire in their bellies.

Its protagonists are two pugilists (Leung and Chen), who have been waiting for decades for their master (Teddy Robin) to wake from a coma. He awakes, unable to recognize the wrinkled pair, but agrees to train them for a boxing match anyway.

The idea for the film, Cheng says, was sparked 10 years ago by an unlikely musical jam session with Teddy Robin and his buddies — "uncles," Cheng calls them — who arrived in Mercedes-Benzes and Porsches, in suits and with sparse hair.

At first, they droned on and on about their investments. But then "someone played a chord on a guitar and everyone else started playing," he recalls. "For four to five minutes, they became different people."

Inspired by their flash of youthful passion, he sought to make a movie about aging music enthusiasts. The producers he and Kwok pitched the idea to, however, did not think anyone would want to watch a film about old men and music. Even actor Gordon Lam, who produced the movie eventually, did not think much of it initially.

In 2008, "Cape No. 7," the Taiwanese hit film about a motley crew of musicians, proved the producers wrong: People do want to watch a film about old men and music. But its success meant that "we couldn't make a movie about music again," Cheng says.

Lam suggested they turn their movie into an action comedy instead.

He also took their project to his Focus Films boss Lau, who gave them a reported budget of HK$5 million.

A pittance, basically, and it meant that they had to do their shoot in 18 days.

Their fellow directors, such as "Ip Man's" Wilson Yip, told them they were "dead."

Usually, it would take 25 days to shoot the kung fu scenes alone, they were told.

But against the odds, they pulled it off.

It must have helped that they have been friends since taking the same scripting course at the Hong Kong Film Directors' Guild in 1997.

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